20 December 2023

How often do elected officials engage in meaningful discussion with the people who put them in office? Doing so would require a dedicated space beyond the campaign trail where citizens felt they were genuinely being listened to – and where they might even be able to convince their representatives to alter their stance on an issue. 

Citizens’ assemblies have made headlines around the world in recent years. Yet far less attention has been paid to a growing number of formats using similar methods to bring citizens together with their elected officials. Examples include the “Hallo Bundestag” project in Germany, or the “Connecting to Congress” project in the USA, which uses deliberative town halls to create “authentic, actionable connections between citizens and their elected representatives.” The latter project, which launched back in 2006, has resulted in an average 35% increase in job approval among participants for their member of congress.

When Australian MP Andrew Leigh approached deliberation experts at the University of Canberra looking to set up a deliberative process, they settled on an adapted version of the American project, calling it “Connecting to Parliament.” Implementing the format in the content of a parliamentary democracy with party discipline brought with it new challenges. It also raised an important question about the aim of these formats: Are they about allowing citizens to directly influence how their MPs vote, or are the benefits more subtle?

Deliberating with elected representatives

The Connecting to Congress project uses a format called Deliberative Town Halls (DTHs). They started life with a simple premise: Many US voters feel that elected officials are more interested in the views of lobbyists and powerful donors than in the views of their constituents. On the other hand, politicians have no way of learning about the considered views of their constituents. Bringing them together to talk to one another in a structured form could help repair this dynamic, increasing public trust in members of congress.

Town halls have a long tradition in the United States. Yet they are increasingly notorious for degenerating into shouting matches, in which only the loudest (and often the most polarising) voices get heard. Additionally, the open format of the discussion means that they jump from topic to topic, rarely allowing any given issue to be addressed in detail. 

To counteract this, deliberative town halls apply many of the methods familiar from citizens’ assemblies and other mini-publics. Participants are chosen at random to create a representative cross-section of the constituency in question. A single issue is proposed, and participants are provided with easy-to-read background materials in advance to prepare for the discussion. A moderator then guides a discussion of between 60 and 90 minutes between an elected official and the group. 

Building trust

The “Connecting to Congress” project has been running since 2006. It is a project of the Institute for Democratic Engagement and Accountability (IDEA) at Ohio State University, led by the institute’s director Dr. Michael Neblo. Members of congress from both parties and both chambers have participated in the format. The first online DTH was hosted in 2019, followed by several more during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Alongside boosting trust in the members of congress among participants, the format has also contributed to re-engaging disenfranchised citizens. An average of 9% of participants claim they are more likely to vote in future elections after taking part. 

This is surely something democracies around the world could benefit from. But the application of DTHs in many other countries runs up against an obstacle: The practices of party discipline in parliamentary systems. 

The problem: Party discipline

In parliamentary democracies like Australia, political parties generally pick candidates to represent them in various constituencies. In turn, those who are elected are expected to vote together with their parties in parliament. MPs who fail to vote with their parties typically face disciplinary measures, including not being selected to stand in the future elections. 

By contrast, in the United States, most candidates are selected directly by the citizens via primaries. While most are members of one of the two large parties, there is no strict system of party discipline of the kind used in a parliamentary system. Most importantly, parties cannot simply deselect candidates who fail to toe the line. This is why, especially in the buildup to elections, members of the US congress will often break with their party if they think it will win them the support of their constituents – something that is largely unheard of within parliamentary systems. 

This means that members of US congress are relatively free to vote on the basis of input from their constituents. In a recent Ted Talk, Neblo gave the example of a member of congress changing his mind on the version of a bill he was supporting after deliberating with his constituents in a DTH. 

Alternative approaches

Under a parliamentary system with party discipline, MPs are rarely free to take these kinds of decisions individually. For any vote in which party discipline is applied, the input of constituents to the discussion will be largely irrelevant for parliamentary votes for votes in parliament – MPs usually have no choice but to vote with their party. The scope for deliberations to directly influence votes is thus severely restricted. 

On the face of it, this would seem to prevent any simple one-to-one application of the Connecting to Congress model in a parliamentary democracy. Nonetheless, there is still significant scope for the format to be adapted – as demonstrated by Germany’s Hallo Bundestag project. While parliamentarians may be expected to toe the party line when it comes to a vote, they play a broader role in shaping bills before they are put to a vote. And there are also special cases in which party discipline does not apply, giving MPs the right to vote freely. 

Connecting to Parliament

The Australian project began when the MP Dr. Andrew Leigh approached the team at the Centre for Deliberative Democracy and Global Governance (CDDGG) at the University of Canberra. He was interested in the idea of deliberative democracy. At the time, citizens’ assemblies in particular had a high profile, owing in part to the popularity of the Irish model

The team presented him with a series of options, including citizens assemblies, and Connecting to Congress. Leigh was drawn to the latter in part because it is already embedded within the framework of representative institutions, and it holds the promise of improving the practice of representation.

Professor Selen Ayirtman Ercan is the Director of the Centre for Deliberative Democracy and Global Governance at the University of Canberra in Australia. “There is a tendency to view these innovative forms of citizen participation as practices operating in parallel, alongside the established institutions of representative democracy, rather than as part of them,” she told Democracy Technologies

In a research paper published in October, Ercan and her co-authors describe the format of Connecting to Congress as a form of “recursive representation”, which is based on “ongoing, two-way interaction between representatives and their constituents.” It is a format with intrinsic appeal for elected officials, as it serves to reinforce their role, rather than to sidestep it.

To get around the issue of party discipline, the team decided to hold the DTH on a bill that would be the subject of a so-called “conscience vote.” Also called “free votes,” these are parliamentary votes where MPs are free to vote according to their own conscience, with no requirement to toe the party line. Conscience votes are relatively rare, occurring at a rate of less than one a year. They typically address contested ethical issues, and have previously been used in Australia to address issues such as abortion, euthanasia, and cloning. 

Conscience vote on mitochondrial donation

In September 2020, Connecting to Parliament held a DTH on the topic of mitochondrial donation, a therapy used to prevent the transmission of mitochondrial disease. The issue was due to be put to a conscience vote in parliament in 2021. Mitochondrial diseases are a group of genetic conditions passed from mother to child with an extremely high fatality rate. At the time in Australia, around one child a week was born with a severe mitochondrial disease. The vote would potentially clear the way for a new form of treatment, which at the time had already been approved for use in the UK.

Treatment is controversial because it involves using IVF to create an embryo with the DNA of three people: the two parents, and mitochondrial DNA donated by another woman. Under existing laws, it was illegal to create genetic embryos with genetic material from more than two people. 

Working together with Michael Neblo and the IDEA team behind Connect to Congress, two town halls were hosted under the name “Connect to Parliament”. An online DTH hosted on 19 September involved 33 participants, who deliberated with Leigh for 90 minutes using the GoToWebcast platform, posting their questions via the chatbox. The following day, 16 constituents took part in an in-person event, posing questions directly to Leigh during a 60 minute session. Both events were facilitated by a neutral moderator.

Outcomes: The vote

Ultimately, Leigh voted in favour of the mitochondrial donation bill, along with a substantial majority of MPs. This reflected an overwhelming majority of support for the bill among the DTH participants.

Yet while some participants emphasised that they hoped to “influence” their local MP, the purpose was by no means to simply hand the decision over to participants. Leigh explicitly stated in the invitations to participate in the town halls that his vote would be “informed” by the deliberations. “My vote will be guided by the process, not bound,” Leigh clarified to the Canberra Times before the process took place. “The forums, online and in person, will be a chance to have a conversation about the pros and cons of removing the ban on mitochondrial donation.” 

Being able to offer a tangible input to a vote certainly helps make these formats appealing to constituents. Yet their value ultimately lies in their capacity to help elected officials to understand the viewpoints of their constituents, and to strengthen the trust between them through a process of shared reasoning – regardless of how the final vote is cast.

Cultivating Trust

Dr. Nardine Alnemr, a Research Associate at the CDDGG, was part of the team who organised the deliberative town hall and analysed their results.

“People really appreciate being given an uncensored, undisciplined space,” she told Democracy Technologies. “Having more private conversations in these town halls where party discipline is not really present could be a really important way to cultivate trust,” adding: “But it also has to go side by side with how this politician and this representative works on trust generally.”

She also emphasised how the variety of perspectives in the room can be beneficial both to MPs and to the broader public, especially when dealing with issues like this. “If someone starts telling a story, saying “my neighbor’s son had a mitochondrial disease,” people listen differently,” says Alnemr. “This kind of expertise of lived experience is as valuable as technical experience.”


Conscience votes remain rare, both in Australia and in other parliamentary democracies. But in their research paper, the team behind the project identify other potential contexts where the format could be used productively. These include “private member bills, leadership authorizing backbenchers to convene DTHs as ‘advance sensors’ on emerging issues, local constituency-based issues, party leaders convening national DTHs on issues in their portfolio.”

Ultimately, investing too much importance in the capacity of the format to influence votes is to miss the point. The potential benefits are far broader, especially if they are seen not as a “quick fix”, but as part of a broader democratic transformation. 

“There is something really magical and special about the collective intelligence of a group of citizens who come together and deliberate,” says Ercan. “It’s a way of going beyond individual limitations, with results that cannot be achieved through aggregation of votes or through surveys, or even a group of experts thinking through issues.”

Projects like Connecting to Parliament have the potential to integrate the benefits of deliberation into existing representative institutions in a meaningful and sustainable way. All by simply by getting elected officials and their voters to talk to one another.

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